Ask any British child of the ’80’s what springs to mind upon hearing the word “Bergerac” and they’ll immediately venture vintage cars, the channels islands and the oh-so-dishy John Nettles. However, this week London’s WSET school hosted a Wines of Bergerac 2-hour tutorial and thus this child of the 80’s has some new, tastier associations.
I already had a passing knowledge of the wines of Bergerac. The Gloire de Mon Père is something of a cult wine from Chateau Tour des Gendres and is about a tenner from the Wine Society. Bergerac is also home to some indomitable names in the wine industry such as Luc de Conti who is about as enthusiastic about the quality and potential of Bergerac as it’s possible to be. Another wine-heroine of mine, Caro Feely, is a trailblazer in bio-dynamic and organic wine making and is busily raising the profile of the region. However, that was about the limit of my knowledge until this informative event, hosted by Richard Lane, an expat currently living in the region gave my classmates and I a lesson in all things Périgord.
What the WSET tasting highlighted once again is that Bergerac is the by-word for value in French wine. Dwarfed by the reputation of its near neighbour Bordeaux, yet unable to command the same prices, Bergerac offers incredible sweeties from Monbazillac, powerful reds from Pecharmant and amazing value mini-right banks from Montravel, an AOC of Bergerac that immediately borders Cotes de Francs and St Emilion. What follows is the skinny on the wines of Bergerac, the history, terroir, grapes, wines and the producers to look out for.
Wines of Bergerac
The history of Bergerac wines
The history of the wines of Bergerac is the same as the history of all French wine regions but with one particular twist. The vines in this area were planted by the Romans, the quality improved by monks but Bergerac suffered in the middle ages due to its proximity to Bordeaux. Those controlling access to the port of Bordeaux would routinely favour the wines and producers of their own region and would interfere with Bergerac’s ability to export. Although these underhanded shenanigans ceased centuries ago this period of trade was vital for Bordeaux sealing its reputation with the English court (and thus, all the English toffs) and so it was the wines of Bordeaux and not Bergerac that became the favourite of kings. The rest is wine history.
Bergerac continues to sell locally to this day with 85% of her wines consumed in France. The prices remain low, even the price of Bergerac’s very best, most age worthy bottles don’t reach that of entry level St Emilion. This is unfair on Bergerac but good news for the every-day claret drinker currently priced out of the madness of Bordeaux wine prices.
The appellations of Bergerac
Directly to the east of Bordeaux, along the Dordogne river and comprising 12,000 hectares under vine and around 1,200 producers, Bergerac contains 13 different AOCs. The majority of wine produced in Bergerac is red, although thanks to its maritime/continental climate many grapes can be grown successfully and many styles persist; its down to the individual winemaker to control the vineyard conditions and vinification process to design their ideal wine. Bergerac then is something of a winemakers fantasy and that’s why you find many international winemakers buying in. Many producers in the region are now experimenting with oak and producing age-worthy reds, taking the steps to become fully certified as organic and bio-dynamic and creating a real buzz around the potential quality of the region.
The best known of Bergerac’s AOC’s is Monbazillac, an area producing sweet white wines similar to Sauternes with Semillion and Sauvignon Blanc permitted, the differentiator in the permitted blend being Muscadelle which does well on the south bank of the Dordogne. The autumn fogs roll in thick and fast in Monbazillac creating the perfect conditions for the humidity needed to develop noble rot. The best sites slope north facing the wide, picturesque Dordogne river. Monbazillac, due to its proximity to the river and the general high rainfall in the Bergerac region, has some of the greenest vineyards in France as apples, grasses, and everything in-between is planted to make the vines strain for water and improve the quality of the fruit. Look out for the Cuvee Madam from Chateau Tirecul La Gravière and the Monbazillac from Chateau Pech La Calevie.
The quality reds of Bergerac come from the iron rich tran of Pecharmant AOC. The yields permitted here are among the lowest in Bergerac so quality is tightly controlled. Pecharmant wines are tannic, bold and deeply coloured and have the potential to age over 10 years. The grapes permitted are Cot (that’s Malbec to you and me), Merlot, Cabernet Sauvignon and Cabernet Franc though no one grape can dominate the blend with a maximum of 65% of any grape allowed. These wines are produced in tiny quantities and rarely leave the region. Those looking for Pecharmant in the UK should seek out Chateau Champarel and Château de Tiregand whose Cuvée Grand Millésime is one of the highest quality and most age-worthy wines of Bergerac (and still under £25!).
Montravel, the furthest west of Bergerac’s 13 AOCs and bordering the Gironde has produced both dry and sweet white wines for centuries but also contains one of France’s newest wines (Montravel Rouge) with red wines produced since 2003. This AOC was created to rival Pomerol and St Emilion with a minimum of 50% Merlot permitted in the blend and some great strides have been made to rival the quality in Bordeaux especially by Chateau Puy Servain. The best wines of the region available in the UK are from Chateau Pique-Sègue, Le Jonc Blanc, Château Laulerie and Chateau Puy Servain.
One of the most obscure and smallest production AOC’s in France covers six communes around Bergerac including the town itself; Rosette AOC. The wines are good value, medium-sweet white wines from the same varietals as Monbazillac. Rosette AOC is a rare find in France and I can find no stockists in the UK. The last appellation of interest is Saussignac AOC, an area for sweet white wines very similar to Monbazillac but lacking the ageing capabilities and complexity at present. That said, these wines are again very good value but rare in the UK.
The future of Bergerac Wines
The wines of Bergerac are both eclectic, engaging and improving, but virtually unknown outside the region. The locals and tourist trade mop up most of the vintage but with the potential of the region clear and experimental winemakers moving in, if Bergerac can find a unifying identity or USP we could soon see some of its better producers starting to compete with those of her oldest and nearest rival.